Confession and the Early Church: 10 Quotes That Show the Real Practice

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One of the things I struggled with during the process of converting to Catholicism was confession. All of those standard questions were going through my mind. Why do I have to confess to a man? Why is a priest necessary for God to forgive me? The quick answer is that this what out Lord established. A key passage is John 20:21-23 which states,

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

When I started researching even more I asked another question. Is sacramental confession something that the early Church practice? Indeed they did and there are many writing from the earliest days of the church attesting to it. Here are ten quotes from the early Church proving the practice of confession.


Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life…. On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. – The Didache, A.D. 70-90

Just as a man is enlightened by the Holy Spirit when he is baptized by a priest, so he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest. – St. Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 180)

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted [i.e. priests]. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. – St. Basil The Great (d. 379)

Regarding confession, some flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness. – Tertullian A.D. 200

In addition to these kinds of forgiveness of sins, albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance…when he [the sinner] does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine. – Origen (A.D. 244)

But the impenitent spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest…they do violence to his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him. – St. Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 250)

There have been those who would say that no penance is available for certain sins; and they have been excluded from the Church and have been made heretics. Holy Mother Church is not rendered powerless by any kind of sin. – St. Augustine (d. 430)

Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter [i.e. priest] binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed. – St. Jerome (d. 420)

It seemed likewise impossible for sins to be forgiven through penance; yet Christ granted even this to his Apostles, and by His Apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest. – St. Ambrose (d. 397)

Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed” [Matt 18:18]. Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can bind only the body. Priests, however, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself, and transcends the very heavens…Whatever priests do here on earth, God will confirm in heaven, just as the master ratifies the decision of his servants. Did He not give them all the powers of heaven? – St. John Chrysostom (d. 407)

The tradition and consensus is that the early Church was very Catholic, believing and practicing the sacraments as we do to this day.

Featured image: Pixabay. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

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